As a child, I felt more comfortable with books than with people. But in fourth grade I met a teacher, Miss Stevens, who actually saw me—the first adult outside my home who seemed able to do so—and who taught me to write poetry. A lot of people learn poetry in fourth grade—haikus, a few cinquains, maybe some free verse—but for me it became a way to understand the world. “How can I know what I mean until I see what I say?” E. M. Forster’s question has guided me through a lifetime of writing.
A little while later, having gone through all the books in the school library, I asked our library mother, Gabrielle Falk, if she had any books about girls having adventures. “Maybe you should write the books,” she told me.
I took up fiction at the University of North Carolina because Doris Betts was my hero, and that’s what she taught. This led to hours poring over her calligraphed notes in the margins of my stories (“Don’t turn off the picture,” she wrote, after pages of unadulterated dialogue) and also in the office armchair of her colleague, Max Steele. On the day when I trudged into Max’s office, stricken by my first rejection—a hand-typed full-page letter from The New Yorker—Max threatened to take that letter from me until I recognized how rare such a thing was. I am honored to call Doris and Max my mentors, and still hear their voices in my head as I write.
After college, I left for a year in Ireland, because I liked traditional music and Catholic boys (especially lapsed Catholic boys). As a vegetarian, I lived on French fries, soda bread with butter and marmalade, and Cadbury Dairy Milk bars. I wrote in my bedsit, walked four miles round trip from the south side of Dublin to Grafton Street for work each day, learned from my customers how to pull a proper pint, took a 670-mile solo cycle tour, and attended a writing workshop in the basement of the pub where I worked. When I read a poem I’d written about a friend with anorexia, rife with hackneyed skeleton references, an old man responded, “You read so beautifully, no one can tell your poems are shite,” a statement that stayed with me for years until a woman asked me after a reading to sign her copy of my book. “You read your poems beautifully,” she said, “but they’re even better on the page.”
In my late twenties I attended the Warren Wilson MFA Program, where I had the extraordinary pleasure of working with Richard Russo, C. J. Hribal, Robert Boswell and Charles Baxter. From each of them I learned more than I could possibly contain on this page. It’s not every writer who can claim so many gifted writers and teachers as mentors. I will forever be grateful to them.
Since that time, I have taught writing as a teaching artist to over 25,000 students throughout the country, working with schools, arts councils, and the Kennedy Center. I believe each of us has a writer within us, who can be drawn out through a combination of patient listening and craft. In 2013, I co-founded Writeaways writing workshops in France, Italy, North Carolina, and New Mexico with my partner in life and work, writer and journalist John Yewell. In 2017, I served as the North Carolina Piedmont Laureate, and I currently serve as vice-chair on the Board of Directors of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
I am the author of two collections of poetry, Logophilia and A Field Guide to Human Emotions, as well as a nonfiction book, The Art of Learning. My writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic, Prime Number and other journals. I have performed my fiction and poetry at Symphony Space in New York City, Why There are Words in Sausalito, California, and Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, North Carolina, among other venues.
In my own writing, I have been supported by so many. My father, an artist and pediatrician, not only paid for me to attend Warren Wilson, he gave me two other gifts as well: a copy of Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and the following words of encouragement: “I know writers often write about their families. You have my permission to write whatever you want to write about me. Just tell me what I should and shouldn’t read.” My magical and inventive mother showed me that it is possible to spend a lifetime creating and learning. My sisters, Becki and Erica, my stepmother, Miriam, and my other close friends and family have always believed in me as a writer. The Hermitage Artist Retreat has provided me with space, time and inspiration for years. And most of all, I am grateful to John Yewell, my constant companion and wisest critic on this writing journey.
I am a lucky person, indeed.
Regal House Publishing is proud to publish Mimi Herman’s The Kudzu Queen in the spring of 2023.